Andy Warhol, Sleep (1963)by Blake Gopnik
“The first real movie I made was, I put a camera on somebody sleeping, and that’s how it all started…. It just seemed so easy to do.” That was how Andy Warhol remembered the genesis of his film called Sleep. On several nighttime visits in the summer of 1963, Warhol trained his new Bolex camera on his lover John Giorno, a gorgeous young poet who happened also to be the world’s deepest sleeper. Warhol edited his series of three-minute takes—as much film as the camera would hold—into a movie that lasted more than five hours, meant to be screened in (slightly) slow motion. This summer, a digital transfer of Sleep was projected daily at the Swiss Institute in New York, as part of the festival called “Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno.”
From the beginning, some observers—even some Warhol fans; even (sometimes) Warhol himself—have claimed that his durational movies were conceptual works whose essence lay in their premises, not in the experience of seeing them. A few years ago, I tested that notion with Empire, Warhol’s eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building, and found that every minute of watching paid dividends. This August, I visited the Swiss Institute to run the same test on Sleep. I got the same result.
For this Slow Art issue of the Brooklyn Rail, I’ve chosen a few moments from the second-by-second notes that I took as I watched. The rest of those notes—7,000 words’ worth—can be read at Warholiana.com.
Begins with shot of nipple— could almost be female. Establishes possible heterosexuality. (Somewhere Warhol is quoted saying he was afraid Sleep would be read as gay.)
So very tender: Watching someone sleep is the ultimate maternal act. (I wonder if the story about Julia Warhola watching her son Andy sleep is true. It was told after the movie was famous)
Note how close we are to Giorno’s nipple. So absurdly intimate.
From almost its first public appearance, people have said—ads stated—that Sleep was eight hours long. That’s how powerful the cliché of the eight-hour-night turns out to be. We need Sleep to be even longer than it is. (I’ll see if I feel that way in five hours.)
Radical change of angle. Now camera is looking up Giorno’s body toward his chin and face. Meaning we must be down at his crotch.
Now his face, in Hollywood-style close-up. Can’t tell he’s breathing, so could be morgue shot. Fayum funeral portraits?
Funny that I feel very worried about any minute that I’m not attending to the film. (Someone just came in from the street, and asked me about the film. And it made me very nervous to be missing seconds or minutes of…Giorno sleeping. As though there were any chance of him actually doing anything!)
Reaching that point where the image on the screen starts to lose its salience. The brain assumes that it’s no longer a “signal” worth attending to. Warhol’s durational films—like durational music by Satie or Yves Klein—are almost a psych experiment on attention and perception.
Could Giorno have been such a heavy sleeper, as is claimed, that Warhol’s shooting didn’t wake him up? Or should we imagine him complicit in the shoot?
If we imagine him complicit then he is “suffering” the same duration, and boredom, as us.
Warhol is always billed as a passive observer, but here he’s met his match in a partner who’s so passive, he’s actually unconscious. And Warhol’s looking doesn’t seem passive at all, but almost aggressive in its relentlessness.
The hairy Giorno presents a “normally” masculine image of the homosexual male that was almost absent from 1950s and early ‘60s discourse, obsessed with the “problem” of the swish, effeminate queer. (I.e., Warhol)
Giorno has been on his back for quite some time now, with camera in same position. That’s what we (falsely) think of as the unchanging status of the entire film. In fact Sleep has (even) more event in it than Empire does.
There’s a wonderful, almost comic rhyme between the slow in-out breaths of Giorno, as he sleeps, and us as we sit watching. Has there ever been as perfect a mirroring between subject and viewer as here, across the plane of the cinema screen?
Almost three hours in, and I’m acutely aware that the note-taking that allows me to attend for so long is also not true attention to the sensations of the film. I am, basically, attending to the contents of my mind, with occasional prompts from the work of art. But is this always and especially the case with slow art? Do I like slow art because it conforms so well to my model of the work of art as a “machine for thinking”?—as the occasion for thought and talk, rather than as freestanding sensation with its own inherent qualities.
Giorno’s lips now seem very present. He’s shown on his back, as though awaiting a kiss (from Warhol). It’s so important to get rid of the myth of an asexual Warhol. He wanted and enjoyed love and sex as much as any (or at least many) of us. I worry that the culture has desexualized Warhol out of a kind of puritanism (and homophobia) that prefers not to think of greatness and sex (and most especially gay sex) as going together.
Struck by how much it feels like you’re seeing the close-up shot from a Hollywood film—and then you’re surprised simply by the fact that it doesn’t change to another shot as you watch. The fundamental semiotics are from Hollywood (unlike, say, in the films of Brakhage).
5,470 words written so far. In an ideal world, would I actually write so much during a screening of Sleep that it would take a reader the full 5 hours and 21 minutes to read my words?—which would mean that I’d have to manage the task of writing faster than someone can read, thereby turning a slow-art experience into a mad race.
Was Warhol keen on the enlargement of his own love and lust for Giorno to movie-screen size? Sleep is really quite the act of commemoration—of a love and a lover and a love affair.
Aha! I think I just saw motion from Giorno that I haven’t seen before, and new camera angles. Sounds trivial, but actually feels very notable, after so many hours of watching.
Deeply weird new shot of Giorno’s face from above, looking down his nose. Not at all a normal position from which to view a sleeping person. It’s as though Warhol were peering (leering?) over the bed’s headboard.
Film just nearing its end. There’s notable camera shake and movement, signaling a camera that’s clearly hand-held. Warhol is there at the end, as a palpable observer of his lover.
TA-DUM. Over. And out.
Blake Gopnik is writing a comprehensive biography of Andy Warhol for HarperCollins.